Thanatology graduate now making a difference with grief hermitage
Already an active member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, the Minnesota resident found herself searching for answers, with a close friend challenging her with a question of her own – why not enter the Thanatology master’s program at that small university in Wisconsin?
“I told her – because I can’t commute to Wisconsin,” Julie said, laughing.
But she didn’t have to, and neither does anyone aspiring to earn an MS in Thanatology, as Julie found out upon inquiring about Marian University’s program – it’s 100% online.
“I wanted to be immersed in thanatology,” Julie said of the scientific discipline, which examines death from multiple perspectives, including physical, ethical, spiritual, medical, sociological, and psychological. “Life is precious, life is short, and I wanted to be able to help more grieving people.”
Truthfully, Julie had been helping others since she earned her BA in Counseling Psychology in the 1980s from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, which she did by writing her own minor in Thanatology. Interested in it at the time, she didn’t see a career path that would allow her to utilize the thanatology knowledge she gained. So, she turned to working in residential treatment with teenagers and individuals on probation.
She married and had a son, Jim. Two years later Kevin was born with significant anomalies. Kevin did not have any limbs. He died at five weeks old. Then, two years later, Jill was born with the absence of legs, who died at two days old – a complicated grief and series of traumas contributed to a divorce.
“Being asked ‘How many children do you have?’ can be a difficult question to answer, because in my heart I have more than people are aware of,” Julie said. “That feeling compelled me to want to help others, to help them through their grief and to find meaning in it.”
Julie remarried in 1994, and with her husband, Scott, had two healthy children, Jo and Jake. Over the years Julie continued to volunteer at different organizations, including at a grief camp where she continues to serve as a facilitator for adults as well as leading ongoing virtual and in person support groups.
“When I married Scott I told him – we’re not just going to use that little house as a storage shed,” Julie said. “Once I was in the Thanatology program it became clear to me that it needed to be a place where people could go to find a sense of calm, healing and inspiration.”
The offering of Under Blue Skies Hermitage was supposed to begin in earnest in February 2020, but the pandemic turned what would have been a launch into a more gradual opening. But, so far those who’ve utilized the space have responding well, and Julie is hopeful that it will be a space of healing in the coming months.
Speaking of the need for this service, Julie spoke about the urgency for accompaniment in grief.
“My grandfather never lived more than a mile from where he was born, but in today’s world we are much more mobile where extended family are not as physically close as they once were,” Julie said. “When tragedy strikes, you may feel like you’re on an island, so this unique experience of a hermitage stay is an outlet to support, and guide them through their grief.”
Julie is also helping guide others through the research she did for her capstone, which was required before she graduated in December 2018. Her analysis, centered on rural perinatal loss, was co-authored by Thanatology Department Chair Janet McCord and professor Rebecca Morse, and was published in the peer-reviewed OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying.
“When I found out it was going to be published, I couldn’t believe it,” Julie said. “It’s been very humbling to have individuals I spoke with for the article respond, offering that they feel they have contributed to helping others in a way that honors children they have lost.”
While she focused on the opening of the hermitage this year, she isn’t shying away from venturing beyond its borders to share her knowledge once it’s safe to do so – she is currently scheduled to speak at a trio of conferences, including one in Denver and another in Minnesota.
“There is a great need for grief support, and I want to be out there educating and caring; trying to facilitate a caring space for all those who grieve,” Julie said.
You can reach Julie at Underblueskiesmn.com